Use of Weapons by Iain M Banks – 4/5 Stars
So I have read a few of Iain M Banks’s books in the Culture series, including the weird little novella “The State of the Art” and each time I read one, I think about how much it feels like a blend of Vorkosigan and Hainish novels. It’s not the most literary writing, but I do find it quite literary, and it’s weird, but not crazy, and it’s usually really good at creating worlds and filling them up with a lot of different ideas and worlds. Player of Games is absolutely brilliant, and Consider Phlebas is quite good too. This novel is right in the middle. It’s a little less than brilliant, and it’s better than good.
The premise is that an age reduced former soldier is brought of out semi-retirement in order to complete one more job. The plot itself is just fine, but what shines in this book is most definitely it’s bizarre interactions among the various characters, the excellent plotting, and the competent writing. The names are always crazy in the Culture books and so like the others I spend a little more time than I would like tracking down who is who and the writing, while fast-paced is detail heavy. You are working for this one, but it’s worth it because of how inventive and weird and cruel the world is. There’s humor, but it’s dark, and there’s peril and it’s real. I also get a little burnt out every time I read one of these, which is the opposite of the Vorkosigan novels. Which of course will be obvious below.
The Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold 4/5
The first time I read this a few years back I didn’t like it as much as I would come to like a lot of the series, and I am trying to think about why that is. I realize that I didn’t have the best copy of the novel, just a used Mass Market edition from when it first came out, and also I didn’t yet have the affection for Miles as I would come to, but then I realized that I read it one morning while waiting for a terrible girlfriend to meet up with me and so the more I read the later she was and then it turned into the worst and final day of that relationship. She cheated on me that night and I just knew it….just knew it.
Anyway, none of that is Miles’s problem or fault.
I liked this one a lot this time. Looking back from the end (not end but where the series is now) gives such a different appreciation for how crazy and absurd this book really is. Miles Vorkosigan, son of the second most famous member of the Barryaran government, victim of a terrorist attack that damaged his cells while in utero, and now trying out for the military, is the hero of this story. He fails miserably on his first attempt. From he unwittingly becomes enmeshed in all kind of intergalactic hijinks. Deep down all of the Vorkosigan novels are a little silly, but I love them. This one definitely holds up and is so well-constructed.
Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold 4/5
This book takes places some 200 years before the start of the series and gives background to some of the most interesting and pressing situations in this universe. Because we come into the universe several hundred years into and because so many of the various cultures are fully established (both as a writerly situation but also on a universe-building one) it’s hard to figure out where how exactly we got here. This book clearly didn’t actually set out to reveal a huge truth about the world or tell a story that was burning to be told (look at Barrayar for that one). And in fact, the race of beings at the center of this novel only show up a little in the first 15 years of the series (one in fact) and then show up in a huge way in the novel “Diplomatic Immunity” late in the series. This is about the origin and rise of the “Quaddies” a race of genetically created free fall (zero gravity) dwellers whose bodies don’t deteriorate in null g environments and have four arms instead of two arms and two legs…four arms being an advantage maneuvering around an environment with no gravity. The Quaddies were developed to basically be slaves for these kinds of workstations and then with the rise of artificial gravity became obsolete before the project even really got off the ground (ha! a pun!). So this novel then becomes a kind of oh crap this race has sentience kind of sci fi novel which is a long-standing trope in sci fi. They, along with a handful of humans who care about them, fight for their freedom. One thing Lois McMaster Bujold does really well is dip around in multiple sub-genres of sci fi and fiction.
The Vor Game: 4/5
This novel follows up from The Warrior’s Apprentice, with a brief interlude in the novella The Mountains of Morning, where Miles has been let back into the Imperial military. His first posting is a polar region of the home planet where he must become a weather engineer for that station. Through a series of initial mishaps and then actual actionable issues, he finds himself leading a mutiny against his commander, who was about to mass execute a group of ethnically aligned soldiers who refused to obey a death-sentence of a command, to sacrifice themselves for others, especially when alternatives existed. This mutiny, though correct, puts Miles and the emperor, his childhood friend, in a kind of political impossible situation where any “just” action could be seen as favoritism. So he is enlisted as a spy for the empire and sent back to find his mercenary group who have been contracted to protect one side of a wormhole. When he gets there he realizes his old command structure has broken down and as he’s reconnected he finds out that his friend the emperor has run away from his duty and accidentally been kidnapped and held ransom by an ambitious mercenary leader who wants to marry him and become empress. All of this combines with Miles’s playing two different roles, figuring out who he wants to be, and what kind of life and career he wants to have. He is only 20 and has already been split into so many different things in his life. A theme that will continue for the rest of the series.
Borders of Infinity – 5/5 –
This is a collection of three novellas that were published as side-adventures or background for the other novels in the series. Some fill in details about the universe we didn’t otherwise know or explained concepts or characters who would show up in other novels. I think this is one of her strongest books because these are just finely tuned and great explorations of places we don’t get to see and tropes she’s having fun with. Plus she’s just a master of the short tales.
Mountains of Morning – In this novella Miles is sent to his home district not as a mercenary and not as a military officer but as a Vor lord checking in on his vassals. As he’s in the Dendari mountains, he’s forced to perform his duty as magistrate and weigh in on a murder that has occurred. As he rules, he’s also required to come up with a punishment that is fair and serious enough. He uses this as a way to establish a connection with common folks that will play out in later novels, but also all this before he’s 20. This has the most “European” literature parts that we get. Like a German or Russian novel or a British Novel where a lord must be all lordy.
Labyrinth – In this novella, Miles has been contracted to do an extraction job as a mercenary to pull out a scientist working for a crime syndicate on Jackson’s Whole, a planet based in mercantilism and whatnot. While there, he also must kill/rescue/recruit depending on what he decides Taura, a genetically created solider who is basically a horny teenage werewolf. Miles has a crush on her because of their shared “freak” status.
The Border of Infinity – This novella puts Miles in a Cetagandan prison colony where there is perpetual observation, perpetual violence, and perpetual sunlight, but the actual prison is created through a scarcity of resources and mutually assured violence. Basically the prisoners create their own order by fighting over meager resources. This disallows any kind of organization. Miles immediately starts putting in an action to change all this.
Cetaganda 3/5 –
I am not sure I really liked this one when I first read it a few years ago and I remain in the same kind of state. The strength of this novel is that for a lot of these we’ve been hearing about and dealing with the influence of the Cetagandan empire through common stories of the past and their role in various plots, but they hadn’t yet been explored yet. The frustration of this novel is that even with this long and thorough delving into their world, it’s hard to understand exactly who they are and why they are at perpetual war with Barrayar. The issue is that I am not 100% sure why this novel exists, why Miles needs to be part of it, and the fact that it was written years after other novels that have a lot more influence and importance to the series, this feels like a side mission and ultimately unimportant. It’s not clear that this moves the series forward in a meaningful way and so the effect is one of those good but not important Star Trek The Next Generation Episodes where they tried something, it seemed huge, and then it never ever came up again. Especially true given that Miles and Ivan have most recently had a hugely important mission on Earth a few novels back in Brothers in Arms. I am still left wondering why. But so be it.